Pexels/Towfiqu Barbhuiya

You may have seen an online advert recently for a shiny new piece of wearable medical technology. Maybe it’s a video of someone eating a distressingly blue biscuit, or a close-up of an arm with a yellow circle emblazoned with one word: Zoe. The brainchild of a team of scientists from various institutions, Zoe began as a study to track the spread of Covid-19, through users logging symptoms on a free mobile app, and since then it has garnered over 4 million users. But this is not the ‘Zoe’ we’ve seen advertised on Instagram. This Zoe is a “personalised nutrition programme” (read: diet) that uses medical technology to test various aspects of the body, including blood glucose levels, gut health, and blood fat levels, to name a few. It’s marketed as a study, rather than a product, but I’m not so certain this is exactly how it operates.

“Zoe is a “personalised nutrition programme” (read: diet)”

Zoe’s founder Tim Spector claims to aim to “change the health of millions” by focusing on the gut microbiome, which he argues is the most effective and overlooked aspect of personal health. The programme encourages users to eat more fruit, vegetables, pulses, and fermented food, among other items, while maintaining that adding is better than taking away: eating a larger quantity of gut-healthy food is more beneficial physically and mentally than simply eating less gut-unhealthy food. I also really appreciate that the focus is on health, rather than appearance.

On arrival at the website and investigating the technology, I was prompted to choose between “long-term health” and “weight loss and health”, the language introducing a company that really cares about you. Yes, you! I don’t care if you hadn’t heard of Zoe before this article, but they love you and want you to feel good. After buttering up the consumer with achievable goals and pillow-soft visuals, Zoe offers the tests required for the programme. It would be insanity to just give up your health goals at this stage, so of course you need these things. They’re essential to your new life! I personally did not proceed with the programme after these questions, as Varsity cannot and will not give me the staggering amount of money Zoe wanted from little old me. But for the genuine consumer, there is a clear message and an attractive one at that. Part with your money, and you can be one of the first to change their lives with this phenomenal, personalised nutrition plan, paving the way for the millions that are certain to follow.

“Maybe the 500% markup is entirely necessary and not at all exploitative”

The tech costs the user £599 for the first year, with a £300/year subscription following that. £299 of the initial cost goes on the tests, but the sensor itself costs about £50. I cannot claim to be a business genius, so maybe the 500% markup is entirely necessary and not at all exploitative. Again, I could be mistaken, but it seems to me that the intended audience of health-conscious members of a certain class are likely already spending whatever they are willing on exercise classes, dietician advice and intriguing supplements. The millions that Spector is presumably referring to do exist, but it has been proven time and again that the barrier between people and food is cost, not the lack of a little yellow arm gadget that tells them to eat another pear.

“One of the leading causes of ill health is financial instability”

We have seen our fair share of fad diets and machines that promise to change your life, but maybe it’s telling that the advice that has (crucially) stood the test of time is to exercise (a bit), eat (relatively) healthily, and see a (deliciously free) doctor if something seems wrong. I fear that the increasing desire for uniqueness has driven entrepreneurs to exploit the almost universal fear of ill health with “personalised” products, at price points that only hammer home the unspoken sentiment that only those who can afford it deserve to live well and feel good. It is no secret that one of the leading causes of ill health is financial instability, so it’s difficult to understand how another pricey gadget is going to help the vast majority of people who are not so intensely focused on their health.


Mountain View

Is it over for the hangover?

I don’t mean to disregard the importance of medical devices like the glucose meter Zoe employs. They are designed to improve lives, and sometimes outright save them. This little white circle is actually made by Abbott, a medical technology company whose vast consumer base for this product is diabetics. How do I know all this, you ask? Well, dear reader, not only do I research very thoroughly, but also I am very familiar with the FreeStyle Libre glucose meter. There has been one attached to the arm of my own dad for quite a few years now (not the same one, don’t worry). I see every day how this technology has changed his life for the better, replacing clunky finger-prick machines that got blood everywhere and were generally a bit less cyborg-y and cool. Maybe Zoe will pick up one of the estimated seven million pre-diabetic adults (one in three!) who would not usually keep track of their blood glucose levels but for the other two-thirds? I guess they just get to eat a disgusting blue biscuit for fun.